Crime writer and fellow blogger D.S. Nelson has offered this terrific ‘photo of a storyteller as a story prompt. Below is the story that came from it. Thank you, D.S., for the inspiration! Now, please go visit D.S. Nelson’s excellent site, and try her Blake Heatherington mysteries. You’ll be glad you did.
Alison looked through the shop window at the displays of books. She’d come back to her home town for just a few days to do some research for her own next book, and she was looking forward to seeing some old friends who still lived in town. One of them was the manager of this little independent bookshop. She smiled at the display, and went in, pulling off the knitted hat she’d worn as a protection against the early frost. She shook out her tumble of tight, ash-blonde curls, and headed for the counter.
‘May I help you?’ asked the young woman at the cash register.
‘Yes, I’m wondering if I could speak to Tommy Shafner? He’s expecting me, I think.’
At the mention of the owner’s name, the woman looked up with interest. Then her eyes widened and her mouth dropped open a little. After a moment, she recovered herself. ‘You – you’re Alison Browne, right?’
‘That’s me,’ Alison answered with a friendly smile.
‘I’m – I’m a really big fan of your work. I read every book of yours that comes in here. It’s a real pleasure to meet you.’
‘Thank you. That’s very kind.’
After a moment of awkward silence, the young woman said, ‘I’m sorry. I’m – I’m Mikayla. You wanted to speak with Tommy?’
‘Hi, Mikayla. Yes, I’m doing some research for my new book, and I wanted to talk to Tommy about some questions I have. He and I are old friends.’
‘Of course. Let me go get him.’
Mikayla watched as her boss chatted with Alison Browne. If only she could hear what they were saying. She’d try to talk to Alison later if she could. For now, she really ought to get back to work. Well, maybe it wouldn’t hurt to listen, just for a minute. After edging as close as she could, she was able to pick up a little of their conversation. When she heard what they were talking about, her throat closed and she had to swallow hard.
Twenty minutes later, Alison passed by the register on her way out. She noticed Mikayla looking at her closely. As she got nearer, she saw that Mikayla didn’t look well at all.
‘You all right?’ she asked. ‘You look awfully pale.’
‘I’m OK,’ Mikayla mumbled. ‘Just a little tired is all.’ Then she looked thoughtfully at Alison. ‘You’ll be here for a few days, right?’
‘Maybe we could talk, you and I? I could really use your advice. I’m working on my own writing, and I’d love some tips.’
‘No problem. How about if I stop in again tomorrow? About the same time?’
‘That’d be fabulous. And thanks.’
The next afternoon, Alison found herself back at the bookshop. It always excited her when writers asked her for advice. In a way, though, it was awkward. She didn’t feel like an expert. She hadn’t even taken a degree in literature or creative writing. It was just a fluke that she’d been published in the first place. She didn’t see that she had that much to offer, but she’d do her best.
Once inside the store, she saw Mikayla wave to her from one of the aisles.
‘You came!’ Mikayla said when Alison got close enough.
‘Of course I did. I’m no super expert, but I’d be happy to help.’
‘Great! I brought my notebook and pen, but I left them in the back room. Do you mind if we talk there?’
‘No, not at all.’
‘Let me just lock up, so we won’t be disturbed.’
‘All right, if you think you should.’
Five minutes later they were seated at the small table in the back room. Mikayla started the conversation. ‘So, what’s your new book going to be about?’
‘Well, it’s a fictional account of a murder that happened not far from here.’
‘Really? Which murder? Not that there are many.’
‘Do you remember Jacqui Dale’s death? Her body was found in the lake?’
‘Sure do. You’re raking that up again? I thought they put her boyfriend away for that.’
‘See, that’s the thing,’ Alison said. ‘I’m not sure he did it. So I’m trying to find another explanation. Something else that explains the facts.’ Then Alison noticed the look on Mikayla’s face. ‘Wait. You know something about that murder?’
‘You could say so. I knew her.’
‘Would you be willing to talk to me about it?’
Mikayla bit her lip. ‘You don’t want to go bringing that whole thing up again, do you?’ It’d be much better to leave it alone. Just completely leave it.’
‘But what if the wrong person’s in jail for murder?’
‘Just leave it! Please!’ Makayla’s voice had gotten high-pitched and tense.
Alison felt her stomach turn. She slowly got up from the chair. ‘You do know something about this, don’t you?’
Mikayla stood up, too. Alison started to move towards the door, but Mikayla blocked her exit. She pulled a knife from where she’d hidden it, between two cartons of books. ‘I tried to tell you! I tried to get you to drop the whole thing, but you didn’t listen.’
‘Mikayla, don’t! I –’ Alison never got to finish her sentence. And the world never heard the story of how Mikayla had been furious with Jacqui for stealing her boyfriend. Or how she’d taken Jacqui out to the lake for ‘a private talk.’ A talk that had ended when Jacqui drowned. As far as Mikayla was concerned, that was a tale that didn’t need to be told. And if that moron was in jail, good for him!
The next morning, Tommy came into the store. ‘You look like you haven’t slept in days!’ he said when he saw Mikayla.
‘Yeah, kind of a late night last night,’ she said.
‘Oh, by the way, I’m having lunch with Alison Browne today. She’s stopping by around one, just so you know.’
‘Oh, she called. Told me to tell you she won’t be able to make it,’ Mikayla said.